The Psychology of Stress

You've managed to keep your business afloat, but how are you managing the stress?


In the economic tailspin of the late 2000s, loss is part of life. Workers are losing their jobs, employers are losing their businesses, and as credit becomes more and more scarce, everyone is losing confidence. What's more, entrepreneurs are grappling with a sense that they've lost control of critical factors that could determine their futures. Those psychological hurdles are perhaps the biggest challenges facing today's business owners; after all, it was probably that shining confidence and ability to innovate that got you started in the first place, right?

"So much of it has nothing to do with you," says Tarek Tay, 36, co-owner and managing partner of Atlanta's Zaya Restaurant, which launched strong in February 2008, boomed through the summer--and then saw business drop 30 percent in September. Although well-reviewed, it has operated in the red since, even with $1.2 million in 2008 sales. "If your food isn't good, you can improve the quality," he says. "If service is the problem, you can train your staff. But if the problem is that no one's going out to eat because of the economy, what can you do?"

As he and his partners fund Zaya with profits from the New Orleans restaurants they also own, Tay works tirelessly on cost cutting and marketing. "It makes me feel like I'm not giving up," he says. "When I'm out there working and I end up with a busy night, then I get to experience some sense of return. If you sit at home, your worries just fester in your mind."

In other words, he takes control of what he can. In fact, studies have found that a sense of personal control--the belief that you set your destiny--is one of several characteristics shared by happy people. These days, gaining that sense of control might seem like a tall order. But even when the world is hurtling toward an uncertain future, there's one thing that's always and entirely up to you: your perspective on that world. And if you're an entrepreneur in an economy on the brink, your perspective could be getting a little loopy.

Actually, it's called cognitive distortion, says Edward Trieber, a clinical psychologist, an attorney and the managing director of Harris, Rothenberg International LLC, which provides integrated

solutions, executive coaching, web development and more. Cognitive distortion can cause people under undue stress to discount positive events, seeing only the negative. They also might lose their long-term perspective, focusing exclusively on the immediate fires they're called upon to douse, or perceive even minor events as major catastrophes. As of late, Trieber's company has been helping businesses cope with the stress of economic uncertainty. According to the American Psychological Association, nearly half of Americans (47 percent) report that 2008 brought increased stress--with money and the economy topping worry lists--while 30 percent say their stress is extreme.

Think Straight

Your first stop on the cognitive thrill ride: a network of people to talk to, says Trieber--and not for the warm fuzzies. Friends and family can point out when your doomsday scenarios are getting a little too biblical for your own good; they'll also remind you that you're more than your work. "When people define themselves by their business," says Trieber, "they might conclude, 'If my business isn't doing well, then I'm not doing well.'"

That's a precarious position in a volatile economy. But for husband and wife team Eric Haggard, 47, and Kimberly Rock, 42, whose home is security against their Torrington, Connecticut, business lines of credit, work and life really are one and the same. Rock recalls the period before she and Haggard launched their online retail business as one of the most stressful times of her life.

Today, she realizes the danger of losing her home wasn't as real as it felt then. "But fear isn't always rational," says Rock, whose site, which provides archival-quality custom framing for digital photography, launched with $225,000 and brought in $100,000 in 2008 sales. "For one week, I wallowed in the what-ifs. And it did me absolutely no good."